Clarendon Lecture 3: Gods and Beggars

Street Songs

These lectures are about the use made by writers in the ‘long nineteenth century’ of songs that were sung on the streets of cities. They included ballads, folk songs, and popular songs from opera to music-hall, but also the cries of street vendors and, by metaphorical license, the ‘song’ of a tramway or a knife-grinder’s wheel. Such songs formed part of the urban ‘soundscape’, and offered many writers a rich expressive and symbolic resource; writers also responded to the challenge of a rival art, one that could claim to ‘voice’ the city more potently than writing. In this sense the presence of street songs in novels and poems belongs to a larger cultural history, that of the perpetually difficult, unstable, unbreakable marriage of voice and text.

With the exception of the first lecture, which will contain some contextual and theoretical material, the lectures will focus on the close reading of selected literary works.

Lecture 3 — Gods and beggars

This lecture juxtaposes two urban beggars from Modernist novels: the ‘onelegged sailor’ who hauls himself around the streets of Dublin in James Joyce’s Ulysses, growling out verses from one of the most famous popular songs of the nineteenth century, ‘The Death of Nelson’; and the old woman who stands outside Regent’s Park station in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, singing a song which may be a string of gibberish, or a primeval chant of sexual passion, or a modern German lied. The sailor is a wanderer through Dublin, yet linked to an immovable sign of imperial power, the statue of Nelson, the ‘onehandled adulterer’; the beggar woman is a fixture, yet also a shape-shifter and time-traveller. For both Joyce and Woolf, the street singer, nominally a figure on the margin of urban life, is central to the design of the novel in which they make their brief appearances.


Other lectures in the series

8 November The Enrag'd Musician, and Other Street Scenes

10 November Proust's enchantment: the cris de Paris

17 November The Poet and the Knife-grinder